In Praise of Anthills

I was collecting dry leaves and grass, strewn all around, to deposit them in our vermicompost pit this Sunday noon, when Mangal, my Man Friday cum caretaker cum farmer,  came from behind and asked: What do we do with the anthills?

How many?

There are some six or seven of them. Do we leave them or destroy them.

Let them be. We will decide next week.

Whoever comes to my humble farm I treat them as my guest. Be it a butterfly or an ant. And in this case they had made their homes. I didn’t want to do anything to them without knowing more about anthills. I discussed it with my horticulture friends and fellow farmers. Everyone said: Let them be.

Called ecosystem engineers, the ants are one of the dominant land organisms on earth, making up 10-15% of the entire animal biomass in most terrestrial habitats. One hectare of soil in the Amazonian rainforest contains more than 8 million ants. There are well over 11,000 species of ants worldwide. The construction of ant nests changes the physical and chemical properties of the soil increasing its drainage and aeration through the formation of underground galleries, and transforming organic matter and incorporating nutrients by food storage, aphid (Homoptera) cultivation, and the accumulation of feces and corpses. These bioturbation effects occur in the topsoil as well as in the subsoil whether the ant nest is subterranean or forms a mound.

The presence of ant hills results in a greater diversity of flora and fauna. Several insect-eating birds will feed on ants, but the most specialised is the Green Woodpecker. Although it nests in tree holes, it feeds mainly on grassland ants, which may be as much as 80% of its winter diet. The woodpecker pecks into the mound, breaking into the galleries and gathers the ants with its extraordinarily long tongue which it protrudes deep into the mound.

The sun-warmed soil of an ant hill attracts many other insects, for example the Common Field Grasshopper prefers the soil of the mound for egg laying. The mounds make good basking sites for butterflies like the Small Copper and reptiles such as the Common Lizard. Ant hills have a different micro-climate and soil composition which favours different species of fungi, lichens, mosses, grasses and other flowering plants which colonise and help to bind the mound surface.

Being an organic farmer, I now realize I have helped create a tiny ‘Amazon’ ecosystem in my farm.


One thought on “In Praise of Anthills

  1. iniyaal

    I stumbled upon your blog accidently..But have spent almost an hour now going through your posts. I knew ant hills were good.. and we have several huge ones around here..But I did not know that they are useful for many insects and rodents other than ants. Amazing that little things that we take for granted have important roles in the ecosystem!

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